Sarah Koenig, host of the mega-popular podcast Serial, has this infuriating habit of ending each episode with a cliffhanger or piece of information that changes everything. (It's infuriating because it means I have to wait to hear what happens next.) In the first episode of Serial's second season - the second ep comes out today - about controversial Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, Koenig ends by calling up the Taliban. They answer - and the episode ends.
C'mon, Koenig! Not fair!
Making a Murderer, Netflix's 10-episode true-crime documentary series, has cliffhangers, too, but this time, we have the benefit of binge watching.
Split into hour-long episodes, Making a Murderer tells the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man wrongly imprisoned for 18 years after being convicted of rape. But just as Episode One is about to end, and the clearly innocent Avery has been released from prison, one of his lawyers comes into the frame. The lawyer ominously says he never warned Avery that if he brought an embarrassing lawsuit against the police force that did him wrong, the police might go after him again.
And they do. Shortly after being released from the cage that held him for 18 years for a crime he did not commit, Steven Avery was arrested for a murder unrelated to the first crime. Welcome to Episode Two.
So goes writer-directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi's docu-series, 10 years in the making. Making a Murderer is a traditional true-crime documentary, with many echoes of Errol Morris' landmark The Thin Blue Line, about a man wrongly convicted of killing a police officer. In Making a Murderer, Demos and Ricciardi make excellent use of their long hours of research and reporting on the Avery case, showcasing unprecedented access to the story's major figures and leveraging the tension of reporting in real time.
But the traditional aspects of true crime are the reasons we like to watch, read, listen to, and consume true crime to begin with. It's why we're obsessed with Serial and hung on Robert Durst's every creepy word in HBO's The Jinx. We're presented with real-life situations that are heightened as we behold them being investigated and reported.
Documentaries may advocate. The fantastic Paradise Lost trilogy certainly had a point of view about its eventually exonerated subjects. Objections arose regarding the accuracy and intent of The Jinx's timeline. And Making a Murderer takes a stance on Avery from the beginning. But all still have facts, documents, and footage to lend authenticity, even when they are at their most salacious. And authenticity is a welcome respite amid a constant stream of reality content that is less than real.
But true crime is also terrifying. Not only are we watching the real, it's a scary version of the real.
Much of the terror arises, as many have noted, from viewers' tendency to put themselves in the place of the victims of the crimes they're watching. Empathy leads to dread, to the taste of fate, of threat. For years, channels like Investigation Discovery and Lifetime have made their bones on this viewer habit. We could be Robert Durst's wife, the fresh-faced Kathie, thinking we've married the perfect millionaire, when in fact we've married the madman.
But Making a Murderer and the first season of Serial (which concerned Adnan Syed, convicted of killing his high school girlfriend) bring up another point altogether: Viewers seldom limit their empathy to the victim. Empathy doesn't work like that. We might identify with almost anyone in the story. The better told it is, the more points of connection, and the greater terror, we might experience.
In Making, that point is driven home by Mark Gundrum, a Wisconsin legislator working on a task force to overhaul his state's justice system: "People on the task force, people in the committee meetings, every one of them is sitting there thinking, 'What if that was me? What if it was my children I didn't get to see or play ball with or read books to at night for 18 years?' "
We're not just the murder victim. We could be Steven Avery, too. Or Adnan Syed. We could be the person who everyone says was "such a nice guy," and that might be the most terrifying element of all.
But none of this would work if Making a Murderer weren't as engrossing as it is. Demos and Ricciardi serve their subjects well, but they also serve their case well. They take complex legal subjects and make them interesting, boiling down mundane legal bureaucracy into a cohesive story that still is able to treat all victims - no matter what side of the cell bars they are on - with respect.
The Staircase: A French mini-series about novelist Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife.
The Paradise Lost trilogy: Three teenagers are convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys.
Dear Zachary: A moving story about the death of director Kurt Kuenne's friend, with a tragic twist.
The Jinx: HBO's series was buzzworthy for a reason.
The Thin Blue Line: Recommended for any true-crime fan.
- Molly Eichel
Making a Murderer